Published Date: 18 February 2008
Before leaving former Preston North End star Allan Smart’s Lostock Hall home I stopped to admire a giant, framed colour print of Watford at Wembley Stadium, and asked him about the photograph.
Far in the distance, a yellow-shirted figure has fired a shot low into the bottom corner of the goal and is reeling away in wild celebration.
“That’s me scoring against Bolton Wanderers in the 1999 play-off final,” Smart said.
“Watford went to the Premier League that day.
“It was one of the proudest days of my life.”
Seconds later the camera had captured Smart’s tears as he flattened the corner flag on the way to celebrate in front of his wife and thousands of Watford supporters.
Allan Smart always loved the adrenalin rush, the bubbling buzz of emotions that fuelled his sporting life.
More than that, though, he knows all too well what it is like to savour the high life of the Premier League, and then to nearly lose everything he valued the most.
A couple of years after that magical Wembley episode, alcohol had brought the former Preston striker, so popular during his brief spell at Deepdale, to the edge.
He was charged with assaulting a policeman and sacked by Oldham Athletic.
Smart was fighting to save his career and reputation.
“I went for a night out and I didn’t come home,” said Smart.
“I was in the jail instead.
“It was very hard to deal with, and what happened certainly made me aware of my position, and how one incident or a decision can affect your life and those nearest to you.
“I had three years left on my contract at Oldham, but I got a letter saying I’d get a fortnight’s wages.
“I was finished at Oldham and it changed my life.
“The Professional Footballers’ Association advised me to go to the Priory, but I knew I had to get a grip on it myself.
“The drink had become the source of it, but in truth I wasn’t a big drinker.
“Perhaps I’d go out three or four times a season, but when I went out I certainly made it count.
“I suppose it was a lack of responsibility in my own mind.”
He is a tall man with a solid build and a face that smiles easily, the sort of man you would like to have a drink with at the local pub.
“When the shackles were off, though, I had this inability to say no.
“I had to be there at the centre of it all and I found it really exciting.
“I couldn’t hop in a taxi and go home at 11 o’clock.
“I enjoyed it and I suppose I couldn’t control it.
“I couldn’t say no.
“It gave me a buzz, and brought me out of my shell.
“The lads enjoyed my company and I enjoyed theirs. Drink made me easy-going, the life and soul of the party. There was a stigma, I suppose, at the way I conducted myself at other clubs when I’d gone out socially.
“But drink, I think, can also be a part of where you are in life. My family knew the truth about what happened when I was arrested, and that’s why I’ve still got a wife and kids.
“It did change my outlook on life. I haven’t had a proper drink for four and a half years.”
It is hard to marry up the boisterous character he paints a vivid picture of when I meet Smart for the first time.
He is 33 now, has three beautiful children – Kian, Kara and Konar – a wife, who is a teacher, and a comfortable home.
Smart is an articulate and thoughtful man brimming with ideas, but it is as if he wants to unload the past and draw a line underneath what happened.
He is certainly doing that. He is studying for a journalism degree at Staffordshire University, and still enjoys a good quality of football.
He has signed for part-timers Burscough as their player-coach on loan from Irish Premier League club Portadown.
Burscough are managed by ex-Preston forward Liam Watson, who Smart replaced when he came to Deepdale in a £15,000 deal from Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
When he joined Preston in November, 1994, he danced a merry jig.
Smart scored on his Deepdale debut against Walsall in the FA Cup and the goals kept flowing as North End reached the play-offs, before crashing out to Bury.
“I was a bright-eyed, enthusiastic boy when I walked into Deepdale, like a kid in a candy store. And I couldn’t believe my luck.
“My first goal at Deepdale was a tap-in from half a yard.
“I felt like I’d scored the winner in a cup final, and it was an extremely special time in my life.
“I just went bananas and ran to the main stand. I absolutely loved it. The Preston fans really took to me and always gave me an unbelievable
“It was a pity really, because John Beck was sacked a few days after I signed.
“John was ahead of his time. He ran Preston properly.
“There was no stone left unturned.
“He had a nutritionist, a fitness coach, and his organisation and attention to detail was first-class.
“Remember, that was 1994, and since then everybody has adopted those aspects of how to prepare.
“Look at Sam Allardyce when he was manager at Bolton. He had international footballers playing a Beck style.
“But John Beck will probably never get another job in league football because of the reputation that was created around him.
“A lot of what was written about John was nonsense and pure myth.
“Look at what he has helped achieve at Histon. They are a tiny club, but they are operating in the Conference and challenging for a place in the league.
“John has got that great motivational gift, like Neil Warnock and Billy Davies.
“Their teams play aggressively and quick, and they all have a similar sort of mentality and application.”
While Smart struck up an instant rapport with the Deepdale faithful, he claimed it was a different story under Gary Peters, who led North End to the Third Division championship two years later.
“I don’t bear any grudges in football, but I do with him.
“I’ve met managers who didn’t want to play me.
“I’ve met some who wanted to sell me and others who didn’t like me.
“But with Gary I just thought it was a personal vendetta.
“I couldn’t grasp what his thought process was towards me.
“Perhaps my biggest disappointment was having to leave that fantastic Deepdale crowd behind, because they were very good to me.
“Gary Peters just wanted me out. But that’s the way football is sometimes.
“As you get older you learn there is no rhyme or reason for it.
“You don’t take it personally. You just deal with it.
“The dressing room environment was a strange place and I was 19. I was naive and I’m glad I was.
“Anyway, you wouldn’t want a bitter, cynical outlook at that age, because that’s when you need that naivety and freshness to develop as a person.
“Often players are nice to your face in the dressing room, but most of the time they are stitching you up and that’s just the way a dressing room works.
“But you wise up to it. Get clever to what is going on. You have to if you are going to survive.”
The alleged personal injustice he perceives under Gary Peters still rankles, though.
He recalls a substitute appearance in a 1-1 draw against Scunthorpe United at Deepdale.
“I’ll never forget that day. I was thrown on with 20 minutes left.
“I got the ball on the edge of the penalty box, and drilled a shot in.
“It flew past the goalkeeper, wide of the post. Paul Raynor, who made a run, wasn’t happy.
“Gary went mad after the game, calling me this and that in front of the lads.
“I wouldn’t let that happen now.
“We had a meeting and he said he’d put me in the reserves and nobody would remember me.
“He wanted me out, and he’d agreed a fee with Carlisle, but I wouldn’t budge.
“I thought no. You are having it back.
“It is easy then and when it becomes personal there is only one winner – and it is not the manager.
“The player has access to the dressing room and my aim in life then was to laugh the loudest, run the farthest, and work the hardest, because I knew that’d get up his nose.
“I’d say, ‘Got any extra running for me, gaffer?
“The one thing you don’t do is shut down. Then they’ve won.
“But on the pitch I had shut down and wrecked my enjoyment of playing for Preston.
“I scored against Wigan in a 1-0 win at Deepdale in April, 1995.
“Mick Conroy laid it on, and when the ball broke I put it in the net.
“I trudged slowly towards the halfway line.
“There was no celebration. Nothing.
“I didn’t feel a thing. I wasn’t fussed about scoring because it was for him.
“The dressing room knew what was happening, but professionally you have to keep everything in-house.
“I believe that still, no matter what you think of the manager.
“Gary did very well for Preston, and he made some astute signings.
“The proof was in the pudding with Andy Saville and Steve Wilkinson scoring over 40 goals.
“It didn’t matter what I was thinking. I had to accept that, even though I had an excellent goal-scoring record for PNE.
“But, strangely, I kind of grew up, despite all that had happened.
“I definitely took more positives than negatives from that experience under Gary Peters.
“It made me calm eventually, and that’s why I played higher probably. I never got carried away with anything after that.
“We sort of made our peace after, and we’ve spoken since.
“But it was a mental roller-coaster at Preston. It was just too much in the end.”
Eventually, Smart left for Carlisle United, after making 31 appearances for Preston, in exchange for David Reeves.
In his first season at Brunton Park he topped United’s scoring charts and helped them win the Auto Windscreens Shield at Wembley before a £75,000 switch to Watford.
His passion for the football life has endured, though, despite the trials and tribulations of the past decade.
Yet, strangely, Smart is not comfortable recalling that season in the top flight when he scored Watford’s goal in a shock 1-0 victory over Chelsea at Vicarage Road.
“It was only a brief experience and I don’t like talking about it really.
“It is nice to have done it, but I’m not at ease with it.
“It was a different world, and having played in the Premier League is almost like having a qualification.
“But I don’t really want to push it on to people. By the end I was a bit battle-scarred.
“After we beat Chelsea, it got back to me that Graham Taylor was not happy with my reaction.
“I’d gone in the dressing room and said,’That’s gone now, we’ve got a game on Tuesday’. Apparently, Taylor was livid and asked his staff, ‘Does that Allan Smart ever smile?’
“I said to the press guys that Watford had caught Chelsea on an off-day.
“But Watford were superb and they deserved their win.
“But I’d have hated saying we were brilliant, so I didn’t.
“I always tried to keep my emotions boxed in and I carried that through my career from those days with Preston.
“I didn’t want to shout from the roof tops because you might be history the next game.
“That’s just the way it is and that experience at Deepdale probably made me a bit more cynical.
“Suddenly, I was the hardened professional.”
Smart is at home with young managers like Watson.
He admires the way they think about the game.
“When I see what Liam does at Burscough it amazes me, his great depth of knowledge.
“He knows the non-league game inside out.
“He could tell you the back four at Darwen, Padiham or Matlock.
“As a player you are always finding your level, whether that is in the Blue Square North or the Premier League. When you play part-time you have so much more appreciation for what you are doing.
“Lads who come out of part-time football into the pro game really earn it.
“They’ve not come out of the Academy bubble where they’ve been cosseted and molly-coddled.
“Lads in that situation know nothing else and I just think that’s sad.
“The thing I miss most about the professional game is that gripping anticipation.
“Going through traffic on the team bus to Burnley, Millwall or West Ham and the place is jumping, just waiting to see you.
“At the end of it, the crowd are there to watch you.
“And when you come down the tunnel and hear that roar … that’s what I miss.”